AN ANTHOLOGY OF THOUGHT & EMOTION... Un'antologia di pensieri & emozioni

Monday, 1 February 2016

POLITICAL FELLINI?


In the popular mind, Fellini is synonymous with dream, creative freedom, visual inventiveness, poetry. The notion of a political Fellini might therefore seem rather odd.

And yet, at the filmmaker’s funeral, Ettore Scola said that, in his opinion, Fellini “contrary to all appearance” had been “the most political Italian film director.” Scola did not seem to mean that Fellini’s films espouse a political thesis or enshrine specific political ideas. What he appears to
have been suggesting is that Fellini’s imaginative “elsewhere,” beyond any sort of political grouping or affi liation, shows a deeper and better understanding of the essence of the Italian identity than other filmmakers had been capable of demonstrating.

Fellini is part of a long line of intellectuals and artists, from Leopardi to Pasolini, who investigated the relationship between the Italian identity and modernity in its many social, cultural, and political manifestations.

Fellini’s lack of interest in politics is well known and is an essential part of his myth. In the history of Italian cinema, Fellini was the least “engaged” director. In some ways, the insistence of critics and of Fellini himself on this aspect of his work served to justify the anomaly of his films within the rather regimented context of postwar Italian cinema.

Camouflaged behind the myth of the artist outside history, Fellini was the great exception in Italian culture. When in Amarcord he told the story of Italian fascism as no political film had ever managed to do, or in the allegory of Prova d’orchestra he portrayed the profound crisis of Italian democracy, he demonstrated what he had always been: an auteur whose imagination fed off the conflicting trajectories of Italian modernity, a kind of seismograph, able to pick up even the faintest tremors in customs andthe political and cultural life of the country.

Seen in a political light, the motifs of his work, the nostalgia for childhood, the phantoms of femininity, the invention of memory, the dreamwork—dwelled on at length by the critics—take on a pathological connotation, i.e., they become the allegory of a nation unable to leave its adolescence behind it, trapped by its own history in an immaturity that is uniquely Italian.

The apparent repression of the “political” in his work has an emblematic significance:
I realize that mine may be a neurotic attitude, a refusal to grow up, determined perhaps in part by growing up under fascism and hence uneducated, disinclined to take part in any form of politics that was not demonstrative, people parading in the streets; while feeling throughout that politics is for grown-ups …. The whole Anglo-Saxon mythology of democracy, this lesson of civilization and political awareness, has perhaps passed us by, has not been an integral part of our culture, and in some way has left us with the conviction that politics is always something done by someone else, people who know how.1
While Italian comedy investigated these motifs above all sociologically, Fellini turned them into powerful visions. The symbolic forms, such as the figure of Christ lifted by helicopter and the monstrous fish in La dolce vita, the transatlantic liner Rex in Amarcord, the obscure wrecking ball
in Prova d’orchestra, the rhinoceros in E la nave va, and similar examples, are—among other things—a commentary on the traumatic dimension of Italian modernity.

At the end of the sixties, the theoretical journal of the Soviet Communist Party, Kommunist, attacked the prevailing criticism of Fellini’s films, affirming that the subjective deformation of the world by no means concealed “the acute representation of the agony of capitalist civilization.” The journal took issue with Fellini himself and the way he talked about his films.

“There is an objective sense to his films,” the house organ of the PCUS went on, “which opens up far vaster horizons than those the director himself wishes to deal with, even at the expense of—and contradicting—his own artistic conceptions.”2

These horizons, I think, have not been investigated systematically by criticism.

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1. F. Fellini, Intervista sul cinema (Interview on the Cinema), ed. Giovanni Grazzini, (Rome/Bari: Laterza, 2004 [1983]), 15–16.
2. The opportunity arose from the publication of a book edited by Georgi Bogemski, Federico Fellini: Stat’i: Interv’ju: Recenzii: Vospominanija (Moscow: Isskustvo, 1968). Also see C. Fracassi, “Così vedono Fellini in URSS. Un realista suo malgrado” [How They See Fellini in the USSR: A Realist Despite Himself], Paese Sera, 22 settembre 1969.

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